San Francisco Chronicle
Fear keeps schools closed, in spite of low virus rates
Teacher Liz Duffield was terrified to return to her classroom in September, scared she could spread COVID19 to her students or get it from them.
Three months later, the Novato teacher is still afraid of the virus, but not inside her classroom. It feels safer there than in the community, she said, maybe safer than in her own home.
Recent data out of Marin County, where nearly 80% of public and private schools are open, show her hunch is correct. With nearly13,000 students attending inperson
classes each day, the risk of getting the virus at a school is lower than the chance of getting it in the community as a whole, health officials said.
Since Marin County classrooms started reopening in September, there have been just two cases of suspected transmission at a school.
That kind of data should help alleviate concerns among teachers and staff and guide district officials across the state in reopening schools as soon as possible — something health and education experts have repeatedly said is critical to counteract the isolation, academic decline and other devastating effects of distance learning.
Currently, the majority of the Bay Area’s 1.2 million schoolage children are still learning remotely, even though the vast majority of research shows schools in the U. S. and abroad are not hotbeds of spread, although data from reopened Bay Area schools is incomplete.
Duffield said her three months in the classroom reflect that.
“It’s safer in this classroom than anywhere else because it’s controlled,” Duffield said, adding she religiously follows protocols, wearing a mask and often a face shield and ensuring that surfaces are sanitized and little hands are frequently washed. “I think that paranoia is what’s going to keep these kids and this classroom safe.”
So far, however, fear has been more of a driving factor in deciding when and how schools should open, said Assemblyman Phil Ting, DSan Francisco, who has proposed legislation to require schools to reopen when state and county officials say they can.
A recent surge in cases across the Bay Area, the state and the country, as well as skyrocketing hospitalizations, is fueling that fear. Within the last week, more than 2,000 people have died from the virus each day across the U. S.
In some cases, county health officials have paused reopening additional schools until case counts drop again, although those already open can remain so.
Some Bay Area teachers have said they don’t want to return if there’s even the prospect of one case coming into a school. Others have said they would go on strike if schools start reopening in January. Labor unions in some districts, including San Francisco, are prescribing the type of ventilation needed in classrooms or the frequency of sitebased staff testing, rather than trusting state and local health standards.
In many districts, officials are not focused on returning.
“Districts with similar populations have delayed and or rolled back reopening plans
based on science,” said Chaz Garcia, a leader with the Oakland Education Association. “Both OUSD and OEA agreed it’s most important to address distance learning considering that we are in shelterinplace.”
Across the Bay Area and the state, the reopening of schools has become a divisive and emotional issue, with Berkeley and Oakland parents, among others, taking to the streets to demand inperson instruction while teachers say returning to the classroom could send them to their death.
“We’ve made people fearful because that was the point, that was the message,” Ting said. “But the whole pandemic, we have said we don’t want emotions or fears driving this. We wanted data and science.”
Lost in the debate at times is the fact that distance learning is not working for many young people, and especially students of color, studies show. They are falling behind, at risk of flunking courses or in some cases absent more often than not online. Depression is growing. Some parents say learning stopped months ago.
“You can’t look in the mirror and say it’s working for kids,” said Marin County Superintendent
Mary Jane Burke. Reopening schools “is almost like a moral and ethical thing.”
And it can be safe, said UCSF Dr. Naomi Bardach, adding that new data from reopened schools is consistent with prior evidence from other states and countries.
Yet the emotional debate continues to rage, and that’s not helping, she said during a recent UCSF webinar.
Despite existing research, the California Teachers Association continues to express skepticism that reopening can be done safely while the pandemic continues to spread.
“This virus will not be rushed, and our schools must have adequate resources to put a number of safety provisions in place before districts can even think about reopening safely,” said Toby E. Boyd, president of the statewide teachers union, in October.
Although COVID19 vaccines will likely be administered starting later this month, it’s unclear where teachers will be in the line to get them.
Despite the importance of relying on research and data for policy decisions, there is a glaring lack of uniform and consistent data on cases in
schools, especially tracking the transmission.
That’s an important piece of the data puzzle to prove schools are safe to reopen, health and education officials say. There are and will be cases of coronavirus that come into schools, but the goal is to prevent the spread or an outbreak, which means they need to know where a student or staff member got it.
Of the 37 Marin County coronavirus cases in students and staff, two are suspected inschool transmissions. Both cases were between adults, including one case where two teachers sat next to each other for “hours and hours” at a school site, Bardach said.
In many communities where classrooms are open, including New York City, case counts are lower than or similar to community rates.
In San Francisco, 96 charter and private schools have authorization to conduct inperson learning and are serving approximately 15,713 students. So far, less than 1% of students and staff have confirmed positive cases, compared to a 3% positivity rate citywide.
“The vast majority” contracted via community spread and brought it into the school, according to the county’s COVID Command Center.
There have been no outbreaks attributed to schools, and no schools have been closed completely due to COVID cases, health officials said.
In other communities, including Alameda County, officials said they don’t have case counts by industry, including schools, let alone where those cases were acquired.
Santa Clara County health officials said that since Oct. 1, 21 cases of COVID19 have been reported among inperson students and 14 among staff, although the county doesn’t know exactly how many total students and staff are back in classrooms. They have recently asked schools to provide that information.
Without comprehensive data, isolated incidents have taken on mythical proportions, fueling the fear of inperson instruction. A recent outbreak among adults in a Danville school has added to those concerns.
Three adult specialneeds students and five staff members tested positive for the virus last month, shortly after they returned to inperson instruction at the Del Amigo High School campus on Nov. 17.
In that case, one student was not able to wear a mask because of disabilities, and not all protocols were followed, including the requirement to send a student with symptoms to the office for evaluation, said San Ramon Unified Superintendent John Malloy.
Following the outbreak, the district increased safety protocols, including N95 masks and shields for staff in classrooms where a student or students cannot wear a mask. No other students or staff were affected.
The incident has not closed other classrooms, and the district is still on track to reopen to all 10,000 students on Jan. 5.
“We’ve been focused on the fact that some of our kids and families are absolutely fine in virtual learning,” Malloy said. “But we have some kids who absolutely need to be back absolutely now. They’re not OK. We’re losing them.”
Reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic is one of the hardest things Malloy has had to do in his 30 years in education, but he believes it can be done safely.
Teacher Tim Bucy believes that too.
The Marin County special education teacher was among the first Bay Area residents to get the virus in March, contracting it shortly after schools shut down. He was on a ventilator for 10 days and in the hospital for a month.
“I marched up to death’s door,” he said. “I’ve seen the face of the enemy.”
Now, back in the classroom with his students, he believes the virus would be hard pressed to take a stand in his room, given all the safety measures in place — and the constant vigilance, the idea that you can never let your guard down, not even for a second.
“This really can be managed if you do it right,” he said. “This virus is to be respected, the power of it.”
Respected, not feared, he said.
“What brought me back to the classroom was a desire to do what I love,” he said. “We are not leaving these kids behind.”